Research commissioned by The Automobile Association
Summary and highlights
This report focuses on the theme of 'belonging' in 21st century Britain. The notion of belonging, or social identity, is a central aspect of how we define who we are. We consider ourselves to be individuals but it is our membership of particular groups that is most important in constructing a sense of identity. Social identity is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human.
In Britain today there is public debate suggesting that we are losing this essential sense of belonging — that globalization, for example, far from bringing people closer together, is actually moving us apart. We hear that our neighbourhoods are becoming evermore impersonal and anonymous and that we no longer have a sense of place. But is this really the case? Are we losing our sense of belonging, or are we simply finding new ways to locate ourselves in a changing society? This report seeks an answer.
On one level, belonging is certainly changing. While in the past a sense of belonging was more rigidly defined in terms of the traditional markers of social identity such as class or religion, people are now far more able to choose the categories to which they belong. We are now able to select from a wide range of groups, communities, brands and lifestyles those with which we wish to align ourselves and which, in turn, shape our social identities. At the same time we may, or may not, remain rooted in our families or in the place in which we were born. The 'landscape' of belonging may have changed — with much greater opportunity these days to opt in and opt out of various groups — but we still want the same things from membership of these groups. We have timeless needs for social bonding, loyalty, security and acceptance. These have been with us since the Stone Age and throughout our history we have created social networks and groupings to serve these ends. So what does this landscape look like today? Is it that much different from that of the past?
To explore this fundamental aspect of human life the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) has employed a number of research methods. First, a detailed literature review provided the background for two in-depth focus groups with 8-10 people in each, representing a broad cross-section of demographic groups. The material from these groups was subsequently used to design national poll questions that were distributed by YouGov to 2,209 nationally representative participants across the country.
Through these methods, SIRC's research has identified six key social identities in which people most frequently anchor their sense of belonging today:
- Family. Despite public debate about the decline of the family in modern society, family remains the most important focus of belonging. Of respondents in the national poll, 88% chose family as the key marker of belonging. The ways in which families are structured has certainly changed in recent decades, but family remains the most important category of human social organisation.
- Friendship. While the close proximity of a large extended family would have provided a structure for social support in the past, this function is now filled, at least in part, by an increasingly diverse and multilayered network of friendships. Increased geographic mobility and interconnectedness through new digital technologies allow us to connect with people in new ways. In the poll, 65% of respondents saw friendships as being an essential part of their sense of belonging.
- Lifestyle choices. In developing friendships and social networks we are also defining the kinds of lifestyle that we want to lead and the types of social capital — the social status, shared values, and cultural practices — that go with it. We make choices about the kinds of activities that we are interested in, the kinds of products that we buy and the associations that these involve. Importantly, we also make lifestyle choices by choosing not to consume certain products or engage in certain types of activity. What we do not do is as important to our sense of belonging as that in which we actively choose to engage. For many participants in the project, thinking about lifestyle choices revealed a far more entrenched sense of brand and group loyalty than they had initially expected or were prepared to admit.
- Nationality. Advocates of cultural globalization point to the fact that national identity is on the decline. As the world becomes more connected it is increasingly common for people to pass through the borders of individual countries, both physically and virtually. While there is certainly a greater awareness of the flexibility of national identities, and the possibility of shedding one in exchange for another, there still remains a strong tie between individuals and the nationalities with which they are born. People may question what exactly it means to be 'British' or 'English' in the 21st century, but this is by no means the same as rejecting the idea of being British altogether. Over a third of all people claim their national identity as a major factor in defining belonging.
- Professional identity. In a society where our social status is to a great extent measured by the work we do and, perhaps more importantly, the money we earn, it is little surprise that professional identity is an important locus of belonging for both men and women. It is, after all, often the first characteristic that people offer up when introducing themselves to others. While occupational mobility has certainly increased for many people, and 're-skilling' is a normal part of modern-day professional life, we remain tied to the social significance of what we do for a living. Our sense of belonging in this context is greater than the affinity we feel with members of our extended families.
- Team spirit and shared interests. For men, the football or other sporting team that they support provides a stronger sense of belonging than religion, social class, ethnic background or political affiliations. The clubs they belong to are also important sources of social identity. Both men and women view the hobbies and interests that they share with others as an important source of identity. For women, this sense of belonging is as strong as that associated with their nationality.
The kinds of social changes that have taken place in recent years are evidenced by the fact that these categories rank higher than other more traditional foci of belonging, such as class, religion, or place of origin. Only 13% of people, for example, feel a sense of belonging to the community in which they were born. The main body of this report looks at where these changes have taken place and explores how we are incorporating both new and more traditional notions of belonging into our patterns of social interaction.
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